Head of Swiss Wartime Probe to Relinquish Position with Bank
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Head of Swiss Wartime Probe to Relinquish Position with Bank

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A controversy has erupted over the disclosure that the head of an international panel of historians probing Switzerland’s wartime past is on the payroll of one of the banks it is expected to investigate.

Jean-Francois Bergier is chairman of the Independent Commission of Experts, the international panel of historians created by federal decree last December to study the extent of Switzerland’s financial dealings with the Nazis.

But the recent revelation that he also sits on the board of a foundation run by the Union Bank of Switzerland has led to charges of a potential conflict of interest.

The foundation, created in 1962 to celebrate the bank’s 100th year in business, gives grants to artists and scientists.

Bergier has served since 1991 on the foundation’s board, which meets three or four times each year.

UBS officials were quick to downplay the significance of Bergier’s ties to the bank.

“Bergier is not involved in the bank’s business, and he gets only a symbolic payment of $3,300 a year,” a UBS spokesman said.

Bergier has decided not to accept further work with the foundation after his current term expires in November, according to Linus von Castelmur, a historian who serves as secretary-general of the Independent Commission of Experts, also known as the Bergier Commission.

Other members of the commission were reportedly unaware of Bergier’s work with the foundation.

Swiss officials said they were aware of Bergier’s UBS connection when he was appointed last December to head the commission, but they felt it would not undermine his strong credentials as a historian.

The Swiss government has repeatedly stated that it will wait for the findings of the Bergier Commission before taking steps to address some of the alleged wrongs from the country’s wartime past.

Given the importance the Swiss government plans to attach to the commission’s findings, observers feel it was crucial that there be no potential conflict of interest associated with any of the commission’s members, particularly its chairman.

UBS, along with Credit Suisse and the Swiss Bank Corporation, has come under fire during the past year for allegedly refusing to return the assets of Holocaust victims after World War II.

The three banks, Switzerland’s largest, sought to deflect some of the criticism by establishing a multimillion dollar Holocaust Memorial Fund that would provide payments to needy Holocaust survivors, while continuing to investigate the whereabouts of dormant accounts opened by Jews during the war years.

UBS was also in the headlines this year after a night watchman at the bank, Christoph Meili, was fired after he turned Holocaust-era documents at the bank that were awaiting the shredder to Jewish groups.

Swiss prosecutors are now studying whether to charge Meili for breaching the country’s bank secrecy laws.

Bergier’s connection to UBS came to light when the prosecutor in Zurich handling the Meili case, Peter Cossanday, said that because of his involvement with UBS, Bergier could not be accepted as an expert in determining whether Meili broke the law.

Last week, Cossanday handed over some of the documents rescued by Meili to the Independent Commission of Experts, who were to determine if any of the documents contained information relevant to Switzerland’s wartime past.

Bergier will not examine any of the documents turned over by the prosecutor, according to Castelmur, the commission’s secretary-general. Instead, other members of the commission will study the documents.

Despite Bergier’s decision to step down from the foundation, Jewish leaders question whether he should continue to chair the historical commission.

Said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress: “If Bergier is not acceptable as an expert [in the Meili case], why he should be accepted by the Jewish people” in connection with the work of the historical commission?

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